Lorne Calvert: The point is to serve the community as best we can

Photo courtesy of St. Andrew's College

The Canadian politician and seminary president talks about how the gospel shaped his political leadership and how time in public life helps him run a seminary.

Lorne Calvert has followed two paths in his professional life: religion and politics. He has moved from one field to the other over the past 40 years, as a United Church of Canada minister, a Canadian political leader and now the leader of a theological seminary.

His faith and his training as a minister has influenced his politics -- indeed, Calvert got into politics in 1986 running on a platform of opposition to a proposed local casino.

But he says his return to the institutional church has been a fulfilling one.

“In elected office, you can have a profound impact on individuals and communities, but not in the deeper meanings in life,” he said. “We need people from our theological schools who will walk across that cold cemetery with you.”

A former premier -- or head of government -- of Saskatchewan, Calvert is currently the principal of St. Andrew’s College, the United Church of Canada seminary on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and the site of Calvert’s own theological education.

Prior to his time in public office, Calvert served as minister in several small rural congregations throughout the province of Saskatchewan.

Jason Byassee, the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology, spoke with Calvert about the differences between leadership in public office and in small church ministry, and about the executive’s role in a small theological college.

Q: How does your theology matter for how you lead?

I share this notion, widely written on, of “servant leadership.” If it’s good enough for the pope to be servant of the servants of Christ, then it is for us.

I’d remind myself all the time in public office that the whole point here is to serve the neighbor, the community, as best we can. If a moment comes, when running for office or occupying a pulpit, where it’s supposed to serve me, then you better look for something else.

I love the scene at the Last Supper where they argue who’s the greatest, and the answer is, “It must be the servant of all.” To carve that into the desks of legislatures would be a good idea.

Q: Why did you return to church work rather than something more remunerative or leisurely after your political career ended?

When I was first encouraged to seek public office, it was by some of the exact same people who’d encouraged me into the ministry. When I entered, I was of the view that if elected, I would serve four or eight years maximum -- two terms -- and I presumed I’d come back to some form of congregational ministry. Well, I ended up there for 22 years, but I never lost a notion that I’d at some point re-engage with the church.

I realized at the conclusion that to enter congregational ministry directly from the premier’s office would be a challenge, because no matter what, you’re labeled partisan. There’d always be the question, “Is this gospel or is this partisan?” “Do I want that fellow whom I detested in public office officiating at my grandmother’s funeral?”

When you’re premier, thousands of people love you who don’t know you from Adam. Thousands of people absolutely hate you and don’t know you either. If both got to know you, they’d probably both change their minds.

The woman serving at St. Andrew’s before me was in her third year as an interim after agreeing to take it on for six months. She invited me to come talk to her, and I assumed she wanted others’ names to recommend.

[But accepting the post] just felt right. I had offers to work for oil companies, but that didn’t feel right.

The time here has a horizon, too. The Spirit works. And I’ve enjoyed it.

Q: Tell me about the differences between working in government and the work you do now as head of a small institution.

I’ve facetiously said that the difference is the number of zeroes in the budget. Both are very human institutions. They both rely on a team of people working together. In the role of a premier, one chairs a cabinet and a caucus. The parallels at a seminary are the faculty and staff. In government, time is spent ensuring we have the right people doing the right work. The same is true in a small theological school.

There are also some significant differences. I now have no power to tax! Persuasion is the only fundraiser. On most days, we’re not subject to the media scrutiny of public life.

In government, you know a lot of people on the surface, whereas in the church, you know a lot smaller group much more intimately. In elected office, you can have a profound impact on individuals and communities, but not in the deeper meanings in life.

We need people from our theological schools who will walk across that cold cemetery with you.

Q: Did you campaign and govern differently for having pastored small churches?

Those of us who serve in pastoral ministry learn to work with a variety of people; we don’t choose with whom we work.

A premier does not choose who is elected, and just because we share political persuasion doesn’t mean that we’re easy matches personalitywise.

In the church, we know we’re here, not with people we choose, but with people who have chosen to share their journey with us.

Q: I’ve heard it proposed that the decline of mainline churches has something to do with the rise of angrier politics.

It may not simply be our churches. Many of us used to be involved in service clubs, which we also see diminishing. Such communities demand that we learn civility.

But now we parse ourselves into small communities where I can have friends who think precisely as I do. I can control my Facebook feed and not ever listen to someone from another point of view. I can say anything about that other without any challenge.

Q: What hope do you see for rural churches and small theological institutions?

On the Prairies, most things happen out of necessity and pragmatism. Communities were formed here within a day’s horse-and-wagon ride from a [grain] elevator collection point. We built a school and church around that collection point. Those days are long gone in the age of large corporate farms.

There are some marvelous things happening. Across the Prairies, congregations are coming together: Anglican-Lutheran, United-Lutheran, and in many other combinations, sharing buildings.

The congregation not far from here is where Jordan Cantwell (the moderator of the United Church of Canada) ministers and shares a building with Catholics.

We’re going to have to discover new models of ministry and how we serve. It’s like Yogi Berra’s “It’s déjà vu all over again.” We have itinerant, “saddlebag” types of ministry, which is where we started 120 years ago.

Q: Where do you still see traces of the social gospel?

I see it all over. I see it in many community-based organizations apart from the church. Many people who give these movements life have come from the church.

In the city of Saskatoon, for instance, many agencies engaged in hunger issues may no longer be housed in church basements, but the people who started them in church basements are now working in public venues. Some of the work done in AIDS, I’ve seen, comes directly from people engaged in church who now have a broader base in the community. That’s exciting -- that’s salt and light.

One challenge for the social gospel in our province is we grew a political movement out of a social gospel. But as soon as your political movement becomes the status quo, there needs to be salt and light from somewhere else.

The almost inevitable disease of government is to become management. Maybe this explains Donald Trump: our political parties have become management, and working people don’t like management all that much. It’s hard to generate prophetic passion when you’re in management.

Q: Is it possible still to move back and forth from church to politics, as you’ve done?

“The separation of church and state” may be American language, but the realities are more distinct in practice in Canada. You nearly have to declare some allegiance to Christianity to get elected in the U.S.; Canadians are more nervous when folks declare religious motivation.

I still believe that someone who is engaged in ministry can and should stand for public office. I’ve never argued that clerics should be a majority of a legislature, any more than farmers or lawyers or teachers. A healthy society needs a legislature that reflects your community.

There are challenges I lived with every day in elected office. I had political or ethical positions as a result of my faith, and had to ensure that I not impose them on my neighbor by virtue of power invested in the office. I was frank with voters that those positions informed my thinking - I didn’t hide from that -- but I should not and would not take any of my ethical or moral or religious positions and impose them as legislated law or policy.

For example, this province is quite accepting of casinos. My church takes quite a different point of view, and my own view is not supportive. But I cut the ribbon on more casinos than any premier going! That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’d say publicly that was a challenge for me.

Q: How do you think about fundraising?

This is a skill I learned in church first, and not in public life.

In public life, I got to meet a lot of people. It gives you a certain confidence to ask. If you come from public life, you can assume someone will take your phone call. You may still not get anything, but at least you get a conversation.

If we have a passion for the gospel, and for the body of Christ, and for ministry, we should not apologize for seeking support for that passion. No one is insulted by being asked.

One other skill from public life: you have to learn to take a no. “No, I’m not voting for you; I don’t like you or your policy.” On a good day, 50 percent of the people didn’t want me to have the job! We’re not comfortable with that in the church, but rejection in public life is just part of it.

I always hated to think that your skin gets thick. But the work demands that you live with it. If our gospel pleases all, it surely is not the gospel. If our policies in public life please all, they’ve become so innocuous that they are not going to reap change.

Our public, by definition, was a government that proposes and an opposition that opposes. In that crucible, one hopes the best emerges.

I’m not recommending we set up an opposition in the church. But there is one; we just don’t name it! When it’s there, I don’t rue it. I don’t see it as wrong.

Read the gospels -- there’s debate and controversy. If everyone agrees every Sunday, then I’d better check what I’ve been saying. In academia, too, we have difficulty disagreeing, so disagreements get pushed beneath the surface, where I don’t think it’s healthy. A good, healthy legislature will debate fiercely on the floor -- and even say things they shouldn’t -- but later that day attend a function together and be quite collegial.

I remember once saying, “You’re wrong!” in a faculty meeting and realizing, “I guess I wasn’t supposed to say that!” In public life, you learn to say that and hear it.

Maybe this is more possible in a smaller, British-style parliamentary system, where decisions are made by a government or a caucus rather than by individuals.

Q: How do we inculcate in seminaries the virtues you learned pastoring small churches?

We try to do it very intentionally at St. Andrew’s. We have an integrative program, with two years of academic study, two years of pastoral work in a ministry site, and then we return for learning circles, where we have real conversations about how it’s working.

We bring in folks with very specific expertise -- say, in volunteer recruitment. That’s a key role, to get the right people in the right work, and there isn’t a textbook for it! We always have uncongenial saints out there. My own view is you just have to love them into submission. Just love the people, and they’ll come along.